As a single mom, I’ve wanted to go out with men who have children—”members of the club,” as one boyfriend put it. Only another parent would understand “the life.”
I felt strongly enough about it that my searches on online dating sites excluded men who had no children. (Those who still hoped to procreate were completely off limits. I am so done with that.) That criterion joined the others—no motorcycles, no organized religion, and must love Annie Hall (you can’t actually search on that one), to name a few.
But the unexpected happened: I fell into a relationship with a nonparent. It’s given me new insight into the problems that came with dating a guy who’s a dad and into the very nice things that come with seeing someone who isn’t.
Involved, loving fathers want to see their children whenever they can. Especially when the kids don’t live under his roof, a good dad will grab any opportunity to be with them. I understand and admire that. Kids come first. Still, I can’t say I love how it feels to come second to anyone but my own kids.
The childless Mr. S’s availability is somewhat hampered by the busyness of daily life and a social dance card that’s dotted with engagements, but not by the much more consuming parental demands. He doesn’t exactly come when I snap my fingers (nor would I want a man who would), but traveling solo gives him the flexibility to do so on occasion.
It’s not difficult to do the math and figure that, with no children on one side of the relationship, there’s half the potential for complications. And when kids are involved, problems arise even when everyone likes each other. As an example, you can’t spend holidays with your boyfriend when he’s with his kids (or, worse, his kids and his ex-wife—eeeyuch!), not until you’re pretty well established at least. As my pithy ex-boyfriend used to say—apparently anticipating our relationship’s failure—”I don’t want everyone to become too enmeshed.” That turned out to be a cruel harbinger of the breakup, but in principle I agreed: holidays are formative for children. To include someone who might not be there in the future creates the type of strange and potentially painful memory parents prefer to protect their kids from. Yet being kept at bay, excluded, or treated as nonexistent created some painful memories for me.
I’ve found, too, that good dads are ultrasensitive to kids’ feelings, understanding too well that children don’t want some stranger to walk in the house and play dad. You’d think that would be a good thing. But one such boyfriend came across as aloof to my kids because of this. They sensed something false in him and responded negatively. I think on some level the others maintained the same careful distance, with similar results.
My kids liked Mr. S right off, perhaps because this concept of distance wouldn’t occur to him, just as it wouldn’t occur to him to take on a fatherly role. Instead, he acts himself, so my kids are comfortable around him and like him for many of the same reasons I do.
The most unexpected advantage of Mr. S being without child, though, concerns the interactions between him and me. I would have thought the lack of commonality for something so central to my life as my children would be an issue. It isn’t. Rather, the type of loving attention that Mr. S might have directed toward his children is instead directed at me. I noticed this the other day when, after I finished coating myself with sun block before an outing, Mr. S held out his hand to ask for the bottle of lotion. I assumed he needed it for himself, but he took me by the shoulders and gently turned me around so he could hit the areas on my back he’d noticed I’d missed. The gesture really moved me. If his hypothetical kids had been there, they would have taken the focus, and my back would have been scalded with random pink slivers. But kids aren’t on his mind; I am. And guess what? I like that.
Just add this lesson to my pile of corrections. I have to give myself a little credit, though, for not adhering too strictly to my search criteria when I decided to go out with Mr. S. I’d never know the pleasures of this childless man—a motorcycle-riding, Irish Catholic one who’d never even seen Annie Hall, at that—if I had.